4 Stories that Changed My Life Philosophy, and how it can change yours, too!
Your Life Philosophy is your existential understanding of what it means to be a human. This is how I found mine.
I remember loving stories as a kid. My dad sometimes read to me and I would read to my mom. No matter who was reading, I always asked questions. My dad had this thing: any question I asked, he would always answer to the best of his knowledge and ability. Though a compulsive liar, he never lied to me, ironically enough (as I’ve found out over time). When I learned more and more about the world through my readings in school, I asked my dad more and more questions. But, if I wanted the FULL truth about an idea, I had to ask the right questions. Needless to say, I became a great philosopher and scholar between the two. And, I took to teaching English, where I could study literature and writing with others. Then, like my dad did me, I could teach how to ask the right questions.
A bit of an anti-hero in my family because of my studies, I believed myself pretty grounded and confident of my perspective of the world. It was much broader than most people I met in my 19 years, at that point.
Well, I underestimated how literature was better at asking all the right questions. And I, to my surprise, didn’t have the knowledge and ability to truthfully answer them yet.
I’ll never forget taking Early European Literature to 1800; a survey class at Northern Arizona University with Patricia Marchesi. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, right before lunch, I would walk to North Campus to the small, old elementary school building on Beaver street. In a circle of 30 desks or so, each was filled with arrogant readers who felt they knew the world better than the next. Our professor would engage us in conversation about our assigned readings, every day. She never made us take notes, and we probably only wrote 2 essays and did one project. But, I learned more in that class about myself and my life philosophy than I did in any other class I’ve taken since.
I told you, I never forgot.
It wasn’t so much the professor that taught me than it was her approach. Sure, anyone could assign that same curriculum, and I would have read the same stuff. But, the way she pushed us to think about the text. She actually made us talk about it, only providing the story context (which is key to stories) to help us make sense of what we read. We regulated, corrected, validated, negated, agreed, disagreed, and everything else on our own. It was very similar to my honors senior English class in high school. Except, we were more genuine because we didn’t feel pressured by assignments.
This allowed us the freedom to develop our own life philosophy. A sagacity that I’m sure most of us will forever appreciate. I’m hoping, through this article, you will do the same.
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Over the course of the semester, we read quite a few plays, novels, epics, poems, and short stories from the Norton Anthology of European Literature. The pages are so thin, I can read the pages behind pages. There are over 1000 pages, and–
I’m still on a mission to finish it one day (when I have no life).
There were four particular stories that really stained the fabric of my being and life philosophy. I had stitched myself together during my adolescence–strong fabrics and taught stitches. I was college material by the time I left high school. Despite all that, I didn’t anticipate that the tight stitches would make stains harder to remove (damn quality material!). When we read those stories, it was like my soul started crying blood and it stained me. Yeah, vivid, I know. But, it was a time in my life that I spent many hours sitting at Starbucks contemplating to try and understand all that I thought I knew. It was fantastic and nerve-wracking in a way.
Hopefully, I haven’t scared you away. And, the stories may not pierce your brain the way they did me. Everyone has a different interpretation of literature. Don’t think that you are better or worse for not sharing my experience. I’m sure they’re things that I couldn’t quite empathize on your end, too.
The Summoning of Everyman by Anonymous (c. 1508)
This medieval morality play was published in 1508, though was possibly first written and performed in 1485. Morality plays were common during this time as the Reformation started to take hold of Europe and challenge the religious traditions. Typically, you would have actors travel from town to town, performing these plays randomly to engage people in a thought-provoking story about their souls. This story, in particular, serves as an allegory for all of mankind.
You can look up the summary on your own, and I’ve included a trailer below of a story adaptation that I think really captures the lure of the story.
I read the story and I found myself questioning what is truly valuable and virtuous; what I truly valued as part of my own life philosophy. As Everyman traveled on his final pilgrimage, he was followed by all the things and deeds he valued in his lifetime. He talked with these personifications of abstract ideas and he realized that they may not be as virtuous as he mistakenly believed. Is beauty really a reflection of our internal and external good? Are good deeds really enough to excuse our sins? Is discretion really what helps me discern what is right or wrong? I had to think about The why humans value the things we do, and what I truly valued? Then, I had to figure out what made each of those virtuous and “sinful” to stick with the religious undertones.
Those seven sins, those four virtuous, those damn Disney princesses, and their villainous counterparts…what was what? When my judgment came, how would I be graded?
Even if you aren’t religious, it still challenges you to consider what it means to truly be a good person. Is it something we can be, or something to which we can only aspire? What do I truly believe in? Take a second to think about that? It just got deep, right? Or is that just me?
The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (1592)
This Elizabethan tragedy is written by another British playwright. Like Shakespeare, he was rumbling the foundation of entertainment with plays that kept the rich and poor thinking. However, unlike Shakespeare, who captures people at their best and worst, Marlowe focuses on our moral tragedy and eventual downfall because of it.
Dr. Faustus, as far as I’ve understood, is probably his most famous and has inspired many modern movies. I’ve included a summary and analysis of the play below. I love this channel so much. It’s pretty much how I teach my classes (minus the cursing, unfortunately), much to the distaste of many teachers and parents.
When I was reading this play, it really made me think about whether there was anything in the world I wanted as much as he did. He gave up his soul for endless knowledge and power. I did value knowledge, and it would be nice to know what everyone is talking about all the time, but naw. Not for my soul, Man. He regretted it, selling his soul, as he should. But again, what would I sell my soul for? Success? Peace? Ultimate understanding? True love? Yeah, I loved that last one. But, if the devil came to me and said he could give me true love for my soul, would I do it? What would I end up truly loving? Or, could I truly love it if I couldn’t give it my soul as I would like my soulmate to?
I don’t think I could ever give up my soul, and I was conflicted in a way. Did that support or refute my life philosophy?
When I was 20, I watched the movie The Demon Lo. It was obviously inspired by the play, and it really solidified what I was asking about it, as well. The protagonist was willing to walk through hell to bring home his true love, who he had to find through the flames. He was terrified, he tried to say strong, and he was adamant. He was near death by the end, but he was ready to go, as long as it meant she could come home with him first. Even though it didn’t end the way he wanted, he did find out that he had true love. It was possible. It was gone. But, it was real. That was more valuable than anything else he could sacrifice for it. That same movie inspired the novel I have been working on for years, and hope to someday finish.
I had to think about love. If you truly loved something, you would protect it, no matter what. And, if it truly loved you, it wouldn’t let you give up your soul anyway. And, if you had given up your soul to find it, it would sacrifice itself in your place. Yeah, that’s real love in my life philosophy.
Sound familiar? Yeah, Disney had already thought about this. Hercules and The Little Mermaid show just that. Yup, those movies are deep as hell (pun intended).
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1320)
Everyone knows Dante’s Inferno, even though we forget about Dante’s Paradiso (part 2) and Purgatorio (part 3). Probably one of the most referenced stories from its time up to now, Dante’s work has formed modern conceptions of hell more than the Bible itself. He wrote it during a time when intellect was the “new thing”, and culture became more openly secular.
Personally, I love the EA Games animation adaptation (Psst. It’s still free on YouTube. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone). Along with that, I included my favorite summary of it, though I love the Thug Notes version, too.
Of course, everyone knows the 9 levels of Hell and loves the organization.
I think we take to that structure so much because then we can gauge where we may possibly go and what we’re in for >.<.
Well, as I descended through these 9 levels of Hell and eventually the levels of Purgatory, I felt all over the place trying to figure out the 7 sins. Not all of them are present in Hell, as I learned (so, are they really sins?). Along with that, there were some levels that I felt shouldn’t have existed and others that I felt should be lower or higher on the scale.
The level of unbaptized babies is absolutely ridiculous to me. I thought about how in the Bible, you had to be baptized to go to Heaven in the Old Testament. Then, in the New Testament, John said we would be baptized in the fire of the Holy Spirit. Despite this, the man version of the Holy Spirit was baptized in water.
Learn More about the Bible — The Bible Project YouTube Channel
Is it better to be baptized to follow in Jesus’s steps? Can babies go to Hell when they are the epitome of innocence? Can babies be born evil? Same with the forest of those who commit violence to themselves (suicide). Should we be condemned for suicide? When we get to the point we don’t want to live anymore, why are we being punished because we were so hurt? We do it to escape the hurt, just to go to Hell and endure even more hurt for the rest of our “lives”?
It didn’t make sense to me. But, I guess that’s the point. These things that we do, when we are capable of being such better people, are nonsensical.
Not to mention, I had to really think about which sins were worse than others. Is lust so light a sin, being the lowest level of torture? Lust can lead to violence against others (a lower level). But, then, that only validates that it is a gate to a sin, not a sin itself? No, that’s not it at all! What is the worst sin we can commit? Which sins need less punishment than others? In the eyes of God, all of them are the same. Is that fair? Well, sin is a sin.
Even if you are not religious, it still keeps you thinking about your own deeds. If you were punished for your actions, what would be the appropriate punishment? It brings up the justice and prison system. We have to make the same kinds of decisions when sentencing convicts. Should we have the death penalty, or is there nothing we can do that warrants taking the life of another. Should the death penalty be restricted to murder, or should crimes against children be in there, too? Considering children are so defenseless and innocent, even when they are mischievous. Should children be put in regular prisons if they are doing adult-crimes? To many, prison is Hell on earth.
What do you think is the worst thing you can do?
Paradise Lost by John Milton (1667)
I would have to say this is my favorite of all. After the Italian and English Renaissance when intelligence and man’s creations (like art) were most prized, Europe moved into the Reformation. At this point, the religious were trying to fight back and restore the faith in God, rather than in man. They took on the challenge to reform the Church and its counterparts to reflect the needs of the people (though it still didn’t work as well as it should have).
What’s funny is this story is basically a fanfiction! John Milton, who later dictated the story to his daughter who wrote it for him because he was blind, actually took Genesis and wrote his own version of it. However, this brought some controversy with it, and, like the summary suggests–
It’s almost like an “inverse blasphemy”. I’m lovin’ it already!
I wasn’t too enthused to read an alternate version of the Bible when we were first assigned the story. As we went through the first few chapters though, I was struck by the realization that I was connecting with the main character.
Let me make something clear, here: the protagonist is Satan…yeah…the devil…
While Milton was trying to show how bad Satan is, he actually showed us how much he is “human”, too. He’s basically a teenager (I’ll let you read it and find out how). This left me with the question then: is it possible for Satan to be forgiven? “Ask and you shall receive” is something that always stuck with me in my upbringing, and is ingrained in my personal life philosophy. Satan is God’s child just as much as anyone else; he seems to have lied, stole, manipulated, and everything else no more than anyone else. So, would he get the same treatment? If Satan buckled down and asked God for his forgiveness, could he be saved?
How far does forgiveness really go? What do we truly have to do to go to Hell for sure? Just like how the child is pure innocence, can we infer that teenagers may be pure evil during their adolescence? Considering Satan basically led a rebellion because he was jealous and potentially depressed (as we see in later chapters).
Furthermore, I believe it was about chapters 3 and 4, I figured out something about people: we need drama–despite my life philosophy to avoid it. Our professor assigned us to read either chapter 3, describing Heaven, or chapter 4, describing Hell. Being the overachiever I am, I tried to read both, but it didn’t work out too much. When reading about Heaven, it was pretty boring; I actually can’t remember a single description of it. However, when reading about Hell, I remember most of the meeting between the lead demons on the mountain. Their proposals were strategic, manipulative, and ready to bring complete chaos. I loved it! I would totally do what they decided to do!
VIP invitations for the party I’m throwing in Hell will be sent out soon. >.<
The conflict and chaos of Hell intrigued me, engaged me, entertained me. Just like any HBO and Netflix Original series, we love seeing people being dramatic. Get in trouble, get hurt, get cheated, get success, get laid, get paid, get dead, get something! Hell got it. Heaven was perfect, so there was never any friction. Life is mundane because there is nothing to do. No need to relieve stress or boredom because you’re never stressed or bored. Nor go to work, because there are no bills. Let alone get someone to like you because they can’t hate you. There is no motivation to do anything, and you just exist. Ironically, this sounds like depression; wow, I’m earning myself a flame-charred throne.
Conflict is an essential part of being human. But, it seems like God understands, and is willing to overlook that. How much should I overlook, then? Even if you aren’t religious, at what point will forgiveness be too much for you to give? Do you really think life will be better off without drama? What would the world be like if we got everything we wanted (read Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” to see another perspective on that, too)? And, most of all, everyone has a story; is it really fair to ignore their perspective because of what they have done?
That novel I was talking about before, that I’ve been working on for years (so much research), you see so many parallels to this story.
Everyone can look at the same text and interpret something different each time. Different people can look at the same text and interpret something completely different than the others reading it, too. Literature is so diverse, and that’s what makes it utterly beautiful.
They are dense reads, but worth the trek. I found myself through these readings and really forged who I am today as I considered these key ideas. Personally, I live by empathy and find it to be the most important thing to practice to live a truly loving and fulfilling life. And, I think it’s impossible to truly be completely human, in essence, if we don’t take the time to try and consider the other sides. In these texts, that’s exactly what I had to do. I’m a better person because of it.
You need to read them–in my opinion.
No summary or analysis can ever duplicate the existential experience you have from reading it manually, even if you need help with it. When you read them, keep an open mind and don’t be deterred by the religious undertones. Arguably, religion is an organized philosophy helping us make sense of the world, just like your own life philosophy does the same.
What do you think? Are there any questions that these stories make you crave answers to? Are there any stories that inspired an existential or philosophical revamping on your end? How do you feel about literature’s effect on the human soul? Let me know below.
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